Brock experts react to NASA announcement of water on Mars

Calling it a “major science finding,” NASA announced Monday it has discovered evidence of flowing water on Mars.

 The press conference from Washington was a major milestone for NASA’s ongoing exploration of the Red Planet and the search for signs of life.

Paying close attention to the announcement were Mariek Schmidt, Nigel Blamey, and Frank Fueten, three Brock University professors whose research focuses on Mars.

Schmidt, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences is directly tied to the work NASA is doing. Since early 2012, Schmidt has been part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Mission, which sent the rover Curiosity to Mars later that year.

Since Curiosity landed in mid-2013, Schmidt has worked with scientists from around the globe deciding what Martian rocks should be analyzed by the rover and then examining the data that came in. Because Monday’s announcement was a discovery made by a Mars orbiter mission, and not the rover mission, Schmidt wasn’t involved.

However, she said the news is significant.

“Finding that liquid water periodically flows on the Mars surface is not too surprising. The major discovery is that these dark streaky features are associated with liquid water. These dark streaks are relatively abundant in crater walls on the surface of Mars and it opens up the possibility that these relatively common features represent a habitable environment,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the discovery raises the likelihood of life being possible on the planet.

“There’s this growing body of evidence that Mars was once or is possibly habitable,” she said. “Whether or not microbes could exist today is still an open question, but this is one more thing that could speak towards that.”

Blamey, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences whose research involved analyzing Martian meteorites that had landed on Earth, agreed the discovery of water was a major scientific discovery.

“It would be significant. Having liquid water is vital for life on Mars. You have to have everything in place before you can have life,” said Blamey.

“You need liquid water and the energy that the life needs to support itself. From my data, the energy is potentially there, but I was missing the quantitative analysis of water.” 

Blamey said his analysis of the Martian meteorites discovered trace amounts of hydrogen and methane, which would provide the energy required to support life.

Earth Sciences Professor Fueten, meanwhile, has been researching a specific geographic feature of Mars for more than a decade. Using images and spectrometer data made available to the public by NASA, Fueten has closely examined a 4,000 km canyon system found on Mars. Those same images and pieces of data are what led to NASA’s announcement Monday.

He said the findings lead to more questions.

“Whenever we get one answer we ask 10,000 more questions. There’s still the source of the water, the amount of water, the mechanisms,” he said. “This brings us closer to understanding where we might find it.”

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